The Spring Hill Engagement

Major-General William S. Rosecrans had not moved his Federal Army of the Cumberland since taking Murfreesboro after the Battle of Stones River ended in January. To coax him into action, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck wired him on March 1, “There is a vacant major generalcy in the Regular Army, and I am authorized to say that it will be given to the general in the field who first wins an important and decisive victory.”

This did not have the intended effect, as Rosecrans replied, “As an officer and a citizen, I feel degraded to see such auctioneering of honor. Have we a general who would fight for his own personal benefit, when he would not for honor and country? He would come by his commission basely in that case, and deserve to be despised by men of honor.”

Gen Nathan Bedford Forrest | Image Credit:

Though the main armies in Middle Tennessee showed little movement, detachments on both sides were active. This included a clash at Milton, about 15 miles northeast of Murfreesboro, in which a Federal force severely repelled an attack from Brigadier-General John Hunt Morgan’s Confederates. Also, Brigadier-General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry (now part of Major-General Earl Van Dorn’s 6,000-man cavalry force) rode north on the Columbia Pike, across the Duck River toward Franklin, south of Nashville. By the 4th, Forrest had reached Thompson’s Point, just before Spring Hill.

Meanwhile, Rosecrans dispatched about 3,000 Federal troops under Colonel John Coburn to join Brigadier-General Philip Sheridan at Spring Hill and reconnoiter General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee. As Coburn moved south on the Columbia Pike, his men discovered “a considerable force of cavalry,” near Spring Hill, which was Van Dorn’s vanguard.

Both sides began trading artillery fire, and when the Confederates tried flanking Coburn, the Federals fell back under cover of their guns. A scout informed Coburn that no more than 1,000 troopers opposed him, so Coburn decided to hold his ground. During the night, the rest of Van Dorn’s 6,000 troopers came up, outnumbering the Federals two-to-one.

The next morning, Coburn was told that Van Dorn’s whole force now opposed him, but his scouts found nothing to confirm this. So Coburn continued moving south on the Columbia Pike toward Spring Hill in accordance with orders. Van Dorn’s troopers met him around 10 a.m. at Thompson’s Station, about 10 miles south of Franklin. The two forces traded rifle fire until Confederate artillerists began enfilading the Federal cannoneers, forcing them to withdraw. The Federal cavalry then fled back to Franklin along with the infantry regiment guarding the supply train. This left the remaining infantry to fend for themselves.

The troops took positions on two hills and fended off several attacks until Forrest’s men flanked them and landed in their rear. The Federals were quickly surrounded. Coburn later wrote, “I was convinced that a massacre would ensue, to little purpose, that a few might escape, but that many would fall in a vain struggle for life with unequal weapons. I ordered a surrender. I believe it was justified by the circumstances.” Coburn further explained:

“The contest had raged nearly five hours. No re-enforcements were in sight; none had been heard from. The enemy held the road far in our rear. The cavalry and artillery had gone two hours. We had no ammunition. The enemy was mounted. His batteries raked the road, and his men, in thousands, hung upon every advantageous post in our rear. We had exhausted all means of destruction, except our bayonets; beyond their reach, we were powerless.”

The Federals sustained 1,594 casualties (88 killed, 206 wounded, and nearly 1,300 captured), and the Confederates lost 357 (56 killed and 301 wounded or missing). Bragg issued a general order expressing “pride and gratification” in the “affairs recently achieved by the forces of the cavalry of Major General Van Dorn.”

Van Dorn’s troopers encamped at Spring Hill, where he and Forrest got into a heated dispute after Van Dorn accused Forrest of hoarding the captured Federal supplies. When Rosecrans learned of the engagement, he reported to Halleck, “I am not, as you know, an alarmist, but I do not think it will do to risk as we did before.”


  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes. Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889.
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.

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